Saving the iconic southern resident killer whales

Written By Tom Davis

Southern resident killer whales are among the most iconic denizens of B.C.’s wildness. Whale pods J, K and L have received so much recent publicity, many British Columbians might think they are the only killer whales left on the B.C. coast and that they are headed for extinction. 

The first assumption is not true, but the second could be. 

Southern residents are far from alone in coastal waters. Northern resident killer whales range from mid-Vancouver Island north to Dixon Entrance – between Haida Gwaii and the Alaska Panhandle. Both northern and southern residents are salmon eaters, relying on Chinooks for about 80 per cent of their diets. 

Southern resident killer whales are salmon eaters, relying on Chinooks for about 80 per cent of their diets. 

Other less-studied salmon-eating orcas forage in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Transient or Biggs killer whales, named after whale researcher Michael Biggs, also frequent the BC coast. There are about 400 Biggs, which eat marine mammals and are increasing in numbers. 

Finally there are pelagic killer whales. Little is known about them other than sharks are an important food source.  The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates a global population of 50,000 killer whales, of which 2,500 live in our eastern North Pacific neighbourhood. 

Southern resident killer whales dominate media about whales for the wrong reason. Their numbers are declining, unlike their northern cousins who’ve nearly doubled in population to 309 animals since 1970.

SRKW population trends 1960 to 2020. 

What happened? 

Dr. Andrew Trites, who directs the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, offered this terse observation about southern residents. “Fate has not been kind to them because of random bad luck.” Trites also warned “their prospects for recovery are poor.”  

Ample evidence supports his position.

In the 1960s, southern residents were targeted for capture to satisfy the demands of marine aquariums. By the time the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, their numbers had dwindled to 66 animals. 

Their home range stretches from southern California to the mid British Columbia coast. This region contains extremely high marine traffic, pockets of significant polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contamination, destroyed estuaries, a rapidly increasing human population, and compromised watersheds that are critical for reliable salmon productivity. 

In the 1960s, southern residents were targeted for capture to satisfy the demands of marine aquariums.

Overfishing has long been identified as an issue, and was particularly widespread prior to the 1985 Canada/U.S. Pacific Salmon Treaty. However, when post-treaty harvest rates dropped significantly, salmon stocks rebounded, as did the southern resident population, which reached a high of 98 in 1995. Then Chinook declines began again, followed by a rapid drop in southern resident numbers to 78 in 2001.

Their recovery is further complicated by few breeding-age females in the population, and a tendency to produce more male calves.  

Government Actions

Southern residents are listed as endangered in Canada and the United States. However it was not until 2018 that broad Canadian measures were put in place to address Chinook salmon prey availability, physical disturbances, and acoustic interference. Reversing contamination and restoring habitat remain long-term goals.

Current actions include prohibitions on fishing, the establishment of sanctuary zones, traffic separation, vessel speed reductions, approach-distances regulations, acoustic interference reduction, non southern resident viewing agreements for whale watching companies, increased enforcement, and boater education. 

Two important criteria are used for deciding when and where measures are imposed in critical southern resident habitat: Are the whales transiting from point to point or are the whales foraging?  

Key 2022 management measures

  • Two new 10 knot slow-down zones imposed near Swiftsure Bank effective June 1 to November 30.
  • The 400-metre southern resident avoidance zone remains in the Georgia and Juan de Fuca straits, and off southwest Vancouver Island, including Barkley Sound, until May 2023.
  • Pender and Saturna islands’ interim sanctuary zones, which prohibit most boating activities, remain from June 1 to November 30. 
  • Additional fishing measures are imposed for Swiftsure Bank, Juan de Fuca Strait, southern Georgia Strait and the Fraser River mouth. 
  • The first southern resident sighting rule, which triggers management actions, remains in southern Georgia Strait until October 30.

There is universal agreement that these orcas need help, but there is not universal agreement about how to do it.

Maps show the 2021 and 2022 southern resident killer whales management measures. [Maps Government of Canada]

Define success

According to Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, the U.S. has set a target of 110 southern resident killer whales by 2050. 

“This goal is incredibly ambitious given there are currently only 74 whales,” Gless said. 

“Other scientists suggest success simple means they appear in better physical condition, and not as many are dying. That’s a depressing bar,” she said.

Canada, meanwhile, has not defined clear success criteria. 

Responding to a Northern Beat request for clarification on the matter, communication from Fisheries and Oceans Canada does little to dissuade that perception:  

“Minister (Joyce) Murray is committed to protecting southern resident killer whales. They are a vital part of B.C.’s sensitive ecosystems. Canadians care about this endangered species and want them to recover and thrive. Our government has been taking significant actions to protect these majestic creatures and we continue to enhance our protection measures year after year to help limit impacts of human activity in their habitats,” wrote Claire Teichman, press secretary to Minister Murray.

One problem, in terms of setting goals, is the lack of historical population data. 

“We do not know what the original abundance was,” said UBC’s Trites. “(Southern residents) have not exceeded 100 animals in the last sixty years.” 

Trites recommends “setting recovery targets, criteria, and performance markers.”

Martin Paish, the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia’s business development director, defines success as “a recovered (southern resident) population and a thriving recreational fishery co-existing and sharing our marine waters, assuming there ever is a defined recovery goal.”

Erin Gless also shared concerns about the science and recovery goals. 

“We deeply care about (southern resident) recovery,” said Gless. “However, like recreational anglers, whale watchers want assurance that their efforts are having a positive impact.”    

Evolving (as always) science

Southern residents are the most studied whales on the Pacific coast, even as the science required for saving them is evolving and controversial. 

“Large portions of Fishery Management Areas 20-3 and 20-4 (Juan de Fuca Strait) were closed to fishing on the basis these were important foraging areas,” said Paish. “Only to find out that those beliefs did not stand up to scientific scrutiny.”

More research is needed in the Southern Gulf Islands and the mouth of the Fraser River before measures are added “that may or may not have a positive effect,” he said. 

“Realistic science-supported solutions are necessary,” Paish added. “Not map-based optics designed from incomplete science.”

Policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, ecologist Jeffery Young says “The 400-metre approach distance is important, but must be better enforced.” A Canadian government 2022 press release reports infractions were down in 2021 as boaters increasingly understand the complex suite of rules.

Young is also concerned “the recreational fishery’s salmon release mortality is poorly understood and likely high enough to be a problem.” The Canada/U.S. Pacific Salmon Commission reviewed hook-and-release mortality and have used a 20 per cent mortality rate for decades. 

The graphic covers three years of encounters with southern resident killer whales in the interim sanctuary zones. [Graph Orca Behavior Institute]

The whale watch industry also has concerns with regulations, including what they characterize as “a regulatory obsession with approach distances,” said Gless, citing a study that suggests “vessel speed, not distance, has more impact on whales.” 

Gless questioned the rationale for the Pender and Saturna interim sanctuary zones, describing them as “a measure that doesn’t make logical sense” since these are not – from industry observations – critical foraging habitats.

The 2017 comparative vessel noise data study, prepared by Jasco Applied Sciences for the Port of Vancouver, shows that whale watchers contribute 0.6 per cent to the total noise profile, the same percentage as fishing, while recreational boating contributes 2.8 per cent. 

Despite that, Gless said these two groups are taking the brunt of southern resident management measures.

Port of Vancouver Noise Profile data. [Graphics JASCO and Port of Vancouver]

“If the federal government were using the best science they would have rolled out far more closures to protect Chinook,” the Georgia Strait Alliance’s Christianne Wilhelmson reportedly told Glacier Media earlier this month, adding that year-round fishing closures and no-go zones are needed.  

In follow-up correspondence with Northern Beat, Wilhelmson said her earlier remarks were based on eight encounters with southern resident killer whales in Canadian Salish Sea waters between Nov. 30 2021 and May 9 2022. She also re-defined fishing closures as portions of areas from Swiftsure Bank to the Fraser River which would come into effect on first southern resident sightings, with potential to be expanded. Swiftsure Bank lies just west of the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait.

“DFO scientists have quantified the importance of Swiftsure Bank for foraging, however the 2022 measures reduced protection in that essential area,” Wilhelmson wrote. 

Bob Gallaugher, owner of Gallaugher’s Sport Fishing Camp, disagrees. He confirms a portion of Swiftsure Bank was removed, but much larger no-fishing areas were added in the immediate region and points to the 2022 SRKW Management Measures which include “expanded commercial and recreational salmon fishery closures will be put in a portion of Swiftsure Bank, Southern Gulf Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Mouth of the Fraser River.” (See maps 1 & 2).  

Proposed management measures for Port Renfrew will have “a devastating impact” on this small fishing dependent coastal community, said Gallaugher. He commended DFO for considering local knowledge which provided additional southern resident killer whale protection, while permitting some fishing opportunities, and credited the Sport Fishing Advisory Board process for organizing open local public meetings on the issue.

Do hatcheries have a role?

“There is little evidence that hatcheries support healthy salmon populations,” said Wilhelmson. “In fact there is growing evidence it harms the.”  

Hatcheries can be used in limited circumstances for recovery, she said, adding further research into hatchery impact on wild stocks is needed.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is less critical, but also cautions that “hatcheries can have negative impacts on wild salmon.” In a June 2021 update, the EPA noted “the increased production of Chinook salmon by hatcheries over the years has allowed the tribes and southern resident killer whales to continue using them as a food source, preventing a more devastating decline of salmon overall.” 

The Washington Department of Fish & Game graph of Puget Sound wild and hatchery Chinook output shows a variable but sustaining effect from hatcheries on total Chinook production in a region facing continued salmon habitat losses.  

Puget Sound Chinooks historical run size between 1975 to 2017. [Graphic Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife]

Hatcheries have risks and benefits, the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s 2022 State of Salmon reports, while providing a broader context for Canadian hatchery production. 

“Hatchery salmon from Canada represent 6 per cent of hatchery salmon in the Pacific Ocean,” the report states. “(However), enormous production of pink and chum by Alaska, Russia and Japan is potentially contributing major food competition for Canadian wild and hatchery salmon.” (The location of food competition is in the Gulf of Alaska). 

Trites, from UBC’s marine mammal research group, recommends that a broader view of southern residents recovery is needed. He suggests not putting “all the recovery eggs in one basket” and that researchers should expand their quest for solutions beyond the Salish Sea.